DST committed to making inroads despite tight budget

9th May 2018 By: Kim Cloete - Creamer Media Correspondent

The Department of Science and Technology will be working on a tight budget of R7.8-billion this year, but hopes to make inroads in programmes and innovations across South Africa.

The money will be used to address transformation, through key research, development and support initiatives.

Science and Technology Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane told a media briefing she understood the constraints the country was facing but would be appealing for more resources going forward.

The department has received a lower-than-inflation increase and the budget has regressed in real terms.

In her Budget Vote speech to Parliament, the Minister told Parliament that the government’s gross expenditure on research and development had held steady at about 0.7% of GDP in a challenging environment.

"Given the current economic climate, characterised by low levels of growth and competing priorities for public funding, it is unlikely that we will reach the MTSF target of growing gross expenditure on research and development to 1.5% of GDP by 2019.

"If we are to fulfil the ambitions of the new White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation, and address the priorities set out in the National Development Plan, adequate funding for research and development is key." 

Kubayi-Ngubane gave the example of South Africa’s Brics partners, India, which had grown its investment in R&D by 18% and China, by 92% between the years 2007 and 2013.

"If you look at how much they have invested in R&D you can see the correlation in their economies, and in their output."

She said recent reviews pointed to the fact that South Africa’s national system of innovation was underfunded.

On a positive note, she said the contribution by business to R&D had grown steadily since 1996, placing South Africa ahead of emerging economies such as Chile and Turkey.

A large slice of the department’s budget will go towards its Research Development and Support programme.

"We plan to invest R1.4-billion in the 2018/19 financial year to support at least 10 800 pipeline students (honours and master's), 3 100 PhD students, 4 500 researchers, and 690 interns. Over the MTEF period this investment will increase to R4.6-billion," the Minister said.

So far, the department has reached a milestone of 50 PhDs per million people in South Africa. This was in pursuit of the National Development Plan's goal of 100 PhDs per million of the population by 2030. In 2017/18, 78% of the 14 000 postgraduate students supported were black and 57% female.

Kubayi-Ngubane said the department had reached a ‘major milestone’ with the completion of the 64-dish radio telescope known as the MeerKAT.

"The MeerKAT was built through our agency, the National Research Foundation (NRF), and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project at a cost of R3.2-billion – exactly the cost projected originally in 2007/08. The MeerKAT has been declared a national key point to protect this investment."

All 42 farm portions required for Phase 1 of the global SKA radio astronomy project have been secured. An amount of R709-million has been set aside for the SKA this year, and R2.2-billion over the next three years. So far R4.4-billion has been spent on the SKA project. This includes the R3.2-billion for the MeerKAT, as well as land acquisition, the resurfacing of 80 km of road to the site, the construction of 110 km of powerlines and the MeerKAT data centre. It also includes the precursor Karoo Array Telescope and human capital development for the wider SKA project.

The department was also supporting investments in innovations ranging from mining and agriculture to manufacturing and fuel cells.

The DST’s Wheat Breeding project, in partnership with Stellenbosch University and GrainSA, will help the country to reduce its reliance on imports, while initiatives such as the AgriProtein fly farm, which uses technology to convert waste into nutrients for animal feed, has shown great promise. The Technology Innovation Agency has invested R119-million to expand the facility from a tiny research site to a full-scale factory of about 10 000 m2 in the heart of Philippi in Cape Town.

The budget vote was being presented as the department finalises a new White Paper which says science, technology and innovation are central to inclusive and sustainable development "for shaping a different South Africa".